Actors in ‘Ides of March’ outshine the movie’s script

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

“The Ides of March” doesn’t deserve burying.

But it doesn’t exactly deserve praise, either (thank you, Marc Anthony).

The title is somewhat misleading. Anyone who knows the “Julius Caesar” reference, “Beware the Ides of March,” will be expecting something dire done to the movie’ main politico — a Pennsylvania governor named Mike Morris (George Clooney) who’s in a tight race for the Democratic Presidential nomination. The battleground: a make-or-break Ohio primary.

Then again, anyone who really knows Shakespeare’s play also knows that Caesar is more of a supporting character. The focus is on his underlings — here embodied by various campaign managers, strategists and media advisors.

Ryan Gosling is the brilliant True Believer who insists the minute he doesn’t believe in Morris (and omigod, he does) is the minute he quits the campaign. Absolutely, agrees his boss (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the cynical campaign veteran who lost his cherry several candidates ago.

In an inspired stroke of casting, Hoffman’s opposite number is Paul Giamatti. Thus, the real rat here is politics-as-usual as embodied (check out their matching guts) by these clever actors. In one of the film’s most delightful moments, the pair snarl/smile at each other from the wings of a televised debate.

So give the movie credit for trying to break away form the expected “The Candidate”/”Primary Colors?” mode. Clooney’s Man-Who-Would-Be-Prez is a cipher. Of course he’s a charmer with some vaguely liberal views (oh, if only Clooney had tried being a conservative). And of course he has feet — and other body parts — of clay. He’s not the focus.

Actually, in Beau Willimon’s play “Farragut North,” The Guv was an off-screen presence. Sort of like the anonymous candidates in “Nashville” or “Taxi Driver.” But then, the play — or its altered screenplay version — is The Problem.

If “The Ides of March” was solely a battle of wits between Hoffman and Giamatti for the soul of the as-yet unsullied Gosling, it would’ve been a helluva picture.

Instead, it tosses in a complication concerning a comely young intern (Evan Rachel Wood). Not only does she come on to Gosling; she has a Dark Secret, sort of the same Dark Secret comely young whatevers like Natalie Wood had in “Splendor in the Grass” a half-century ago.

I won’t give it away, but let’s just say, this young woman, (presumably brought up on an island near Borneo) has never heard of Safe Sex. So, yes. A Complication.

Where’s Sandra Dee when we need her?

Hoffman and Giamatti act the heck out of their roles — battle-scarred pros who are shrewd, funny and altogether too knowing to even care about who stands for what when it comes to their candidates. Clooney is exactly what we’d expect: a likable man whose people-pleasing obfuscations have taken him pretty far.

And Gosling, who’s been all over the screen this year (“Drive,” “Crazy, Stupid Love”), will certainly (and, I think, deservedly) reap an Oscar nomination. Faced with the decision whether or not to go to the Dark Side, he keeps us dangling, caught in a cat’s cradle of conflicted integrity.

So, the fault, dear reader, lies not in the stars, but in a script than underestimates us.

Clooney knows better. And I guess we expected better.

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

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